Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Review: This Area Is Under Quarantine

  • Directed by Thunska Pansittivorakol
  • Starring Sathi Sobri, Pradit Pradinan
  • Screened on August 27 and September 1, 2008 at Makhampom Studio, Bangkok
  • Rating: 3/5

Always provocative, Thunska Pansittivorakol mixes together inconceivable subjects in his latest work, This Area Is Under Quarantine, which played recently in two screenings at Makhampom Studio, a small, experimental theatre space in Bangkok's Saphan Kwai neighborhood.

The 83-minute documentary has frank talk (and more!) about gay sex, criticism of the Thaksin administration's handling of the insurgency in southern Thailand -- specifically the 2004 Tak Bai incident -- as well as the 2005 hanging execution of two Iranian teenagers.

If the subjects seem dated, it's because the digital-video footage was shot three years ago but not edited into a completed film until this year.

But sex, the South and censorship are still hot topics, and are always controversial. But in the day-to-day grind of the mainstream, they aren't really discussed much. Perhaps that's what the title, This Area Is Under Quarantine refers to -- taboo subjects that are kept locked away from the public consciousness.

After the opening music, a bouncy song about heartbreak called "Scar" by Yokee Playboy, the film begins with Thunska, behind his camera, interviewing a young man about his sex life, his boyfriends, how he realized he was gay, etc. The guy reveals that he's from the restive southern province of Narathiwat and he's Muslim, a theme that is picked up on again later. Next, another young man, this one from the northeastern province of Yasothon, is cross-examined about his sex life. And then the two men chat.

The discussion drifts into the then-fresh topic of the Tak Bai incident, in which hundreds of people protesting the arrest of six men were rounded up Tak Bai district, Narathiwat province. The protesters were bundled into army trucks for a trip to Pattani province, and 85 men died along the way, mostly from suffocation, but also from beatings.

The Tak Bai incident was an outrage. Video footage of it was suppressed and barred from being shown in the Thai media. A controversial VCD was also suppressed. Clips used in Thunska's film show hundreds of shirtless men, face down on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs. Kicking and beating by police and military is shown. Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister at the time, is criticized for his handling of the situation. Incongruously, the bouncy Yokee Playboy song is repeated as the grim footage unspools.

In addressing how homosexuality is viewed in Islam, Thunska also covers the 2005 case of Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, two Iranian teenagers who were hanged. Thunska holds the view that they were executed because they were lovers, though reports by human rights groups say the the teens had raped a 13-year-old boy, and that's why they were hung.

Nonetheless, the image of their bodies hanging from the noose is a powerful one, and the film is dedicated to them.

With that sobering middle section out of the way, it's time for Thunska's two subjects to play, and to get to know each other better. What follows is soft-core gay porn of the young men posing in their underwear and then having sex. Though it goes on for a considerable time, it's nothing more shocking than can be seen on a cable television show like The Wire. The camera pans over their flesh constantly, as if someone is rapidly walking over a rough landscape.

And it's all for what exactly? If the Tak Bai footage hadn't been censored, what would be the state of Thai politics and the southern situation today? It's question that needs to be discussed, even in a gay art film.

See also:

1 comment:

  1. Great review. I'd say the sex scene at the end is borderline hard-core, rather than "soft-core". But the sex, and especially the long footage of the guys posing, feels quite frivolous after the powerful Tak Bai sequence in the middle.


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